A unique and conflicted enlightener: Adam Ferguson’s political thought

Lisa Hill, The University of Adelaide

Iain McDaniel Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2013 (288 pp). ISBN 9780674072961 (hard cover) RRP $85.00.

Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) was a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment but his fame has long been eclipsed by those of his more luminous contemporaries, David Hume and Adam Smith. Ferguson’s recovery from obscurity in the first part of the twentieth century was effected by scholars interested in the origins of sociology and early critiques of modernity and more recently by those looking for early sources on the nature and preservation of civil society. In Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future, Iain McDaniel argues that Ferguson is also worth rediscovering as a source for a ‘critique of modern politics’ (p. 1), partly because one of his chief preoccupations—‘[t]he problem of resolving the tension between the civil and military powers of modern states’—persists to the present day (p. 11).

The thought of the Scottish Enlightenment is often taken to be a unified school by non-specialists; there are, in fact, many ‘fault lines’ within it and Ferguson’s thought was especially unique (Robertson 2000, pp. 47–48). McDaniel brings this out nicely in this new study of Ferguson’s political thought. That Ferguson was the only major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment to speak Gaelic and was a highlander—or to be more accurate, highlander-ish—were just two of many things that made him distinctive among his Scottish contemporaries. (I say ‘highlander-ish’ because, by Ferguson’s own account, he was not a true Highlander; his birthplace, Athole, was on the Highland border ‘barely within the limits at which Gaelic begins to be [the] vulgar tongue and where the mythology and tradition of the highlands were likely to be more faint than in the interior parts’ (Ferguson 1995, No. 337, p. 430).)

In this thoughtful and scholarly study, McDaniel’s stated aims are to provide a ‘clear picture of [Ferguson’s] political thought’ and ‘to focus upon [his] attempt to understand modern Britain’s and Europe’s historical prospects through the mirror of the ancient Roman past’. McDaniel suggests this ‘strategy’ will help clarify ‘some of the ambiguities which have surrounded [Ferguson’s] thought’. McDaniel also wants to ‘shed light on eighteenth-century assessments of the prospects for maintaining constitutional government in large and competitive modern states’ so as to ‘aver[t] the switch from civilian to military government that had characterized ancient Rome’s transition from republic to empire’ (p. 1). Ferguson was acutely anxious ‘about the likely consequences of combining republican politics with commercial society in large modern states’. He shared his idol Montesquieu’s view that popular and egalitarian versions of republicanism were practicable only in very small and socially cohesive settings. For McDaniel, Ferguson’s ‘intricate analysis’ of the political prospects of wealthy imperialistic states like Britain has relevance even today for it bears directly on questions we are ‘still asking … about the relationship between democracy and empire’ (p. 219).

The fate of Rome stood as both a lesson and warning
to Britain.

McDaniel’s book is unusual in focusing on one of Ferguson’s often overlooked publications, his second major work after the Essay on the History of Civil Society, (1767): the History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, first published in three volumes in 1783 (Ferguson 1834). In McDaniel’s words—and as reflected in the title of his book—the fate of Rome stood as both a lesson and warning to Britain about its future if it followed its (then) current trajectory. As McDaniel notes, Ferguson’s History came at the end of a ‘long tradition of eighteenth century analysis of the British constitution through the prism of ancient Rome’ (p. 121). Throughout the eighteenth century, ‘the history of Rome’s shift from libertas to imperium became the main interpretive model for understanding Britain’s prospects as a free state’ and Rome ‘came to represent and illuminate the perceived shift from civilian to military government’ that many eighteenth century thinkers saw as the main ‘threat to modern Britain’ (p. 121). On McDaniel’s account, Ferguson rejected the ‘modern’ project of reviving ‘the liberty of the ancients within economically advanced states’ (p. 11). Instead, he wanted to show that populism and the campaign for political equality could destroy the existing constitution and lead eventually to ostensibly republican but actually despotic rule underpinned by a praetorian guard.

McDaniel is right to argue that Ferguson’s greatest fear was of any condition that might give rise to or necessitate the arbitrary rule of what he called ‘military government’. This fear was a longstanding one and is a constant in all his published works and private correspondence. Commercial progress did not necessarily bring stability or strength and, as McDaniel stresses, Ferguson was a serious critic, rather than an advocate, of the Enlightenment belief in liberal progress. Yet, Ferguson’s position on commercial progress was a little more complicated than this, as I will show presently.

Duncan Forbes, who wrote one of the earliest scholarly studies of Ferguson’s thought, attributed the latter’s virtual disappearance from view in the nineteenth century to his scepticism about progress and his protracted critique of the ‘selfish system’ that had been the alleged driver and principal philosophical justification for commercial and material progress. For Forbes, Ferguson’s sin consisted in his prescient ‘unmasking’ of a ‘second-rate sort of society, full of second rate citizens, pursuing comparatively worthless objects’ (Forbes 1967, pp. xiii–iv), an unmasking that at least partly inspired Marx’s later thought on the subject of market society.

What interested Marx most about Ferguson’s work were his prescient observations on the corrosive effects of the division of labour (Marx 1969, pp. 129–130, 1977, p. 334, pp. 341–342; Hill 2007). Ferguson was the first to argue that, paradoxically, the division of labour was both the cause and product of progress and a key source of retrogression, especially in its effect on statecraft, martial and political disposition and defence capability (1995, pp. 206–207).

Unlike his friends and fellow Enlighteners Ferguson was also a man of action.

Unlike his friends and fellow Enlighteners Ferguson was also a man of action who had actually participated in the seemingly endless wars that built and defended the British empire. These experiences confirmed his belief that all imperial republics (for that is how he saw Britain) would likely end in tyranny. His self-appointed task therefore became how to prevent a large commercial state that was expanding its markets via colonial conquest from sharing Rome’s fate of falling into a military-backed despotism. But, it should be noted here that it was not just the Roman example (emphasised by McDaniel) that made Ferguson nervous: like many other British thinkers of the period, his enthusiasm for republicanism was seriously dampened by the American and French revolutions. These events ‘anathematised republican rhetoric’ and along with many British intellectuals they also ‘locked the British state into a dogged resistance to popular participation’ (Philp 1998, p. 270).

Certainly, Ferguson’s uniqueness lay partly in the fact that he was much more critical of large commercial empires like Britain’s than his Scottish contemporaries. By the same token, his critique was not radical. As McDaniel labours to demonstrate, Ferguson had pronounced conservative and aristocratic leanings. Despite the affinities with Marx, he was neither a revolutionary nor an egalitarian thinker. Unlike Marx, who seems to have overstated his own affinity with Ferguson (1977, p. 334), Ferguson saw specialisation as an inevitable development originating in the natural diversity of human talents. Moreover, the class inequalities that Ferguson happily admitted were reinforced by specialisation (1996a, pp. 63–64, p. 178) were natural, adaptive and useful. Although he acknowledged that in market societies ‘the exaltation of the few’ tends to ‘depress the many’ (1996a, p. 177), he also insisted that the whole idea of equality is an ‘absur[d] pretension’ (1996a, p. 179). Class was not a social evil to be transcended, as Marx thought, but was an indispensable component of civil society and a vital support to social and political order (1996a, pp. 63–64). Further, Ferguson was far more concerned with the effects of specialisation on the civic virtue of ‘statesmen’ and elites than with alienation effects on workers. For Ferguson it was the ruling classes, the ‘statesmen’ and military leaders, who bore the worst of specialisation effects and that it was at this level that the most disabling social consequences took place. While Ferguson acknowledged that task specialisation was a major driver of material progress, he believed soldiering should be singled out and exempted from this otherwise natural trend. He deplored the separation of political, civil and military ‘departments’ which render practitioners mere ‘tradesmen’ and recommends instead a ‘union of departments’ to avoid the ‘ruinous ignorance’ which always leads to corruption (1996b, p. 15, pp. 141–151).

Ferguson had firsthand experience of this erosion of civic ardour and competence, having joined the British army in its campaign to suppress the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745–46. He later became chaplain of the legendary Black Watch regiment and was a founder member of the Poker Club, a society formed to agitate for the right of Scotland to establish its own citizen militia. Although Scotland’s right to its own militia was made legally impossible as a consequence of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, Ferguson hoped that Scotland would someday be permitted to raise its own militia and thereby restore the ‘civic virtue’ of its male citizens, particular its elites. No Scots militia meant greater reliance upon professional standing armies, a trend Ferguson vehemently opposed because he shared with Greek historian, Polybius (BCE 200–118), the belief that the union of Rome’s military and civil orders had been its chief strength.

Ferguson had firsthand experience of this erosion of civic ardour and competence.

While McDaniel is right to emphasise Ferguson’s rather complacent attitude to inequality, he mistakenly assumes that it is something that has been overlooked by Ferguson scholars ‘because of a longstanding tendency to see equality … as a crucial component of republican ideology’ (pp. 6–7). McDaniel asserts that Ferguson’s Essay ‘is conventionally read as a republican text’ (p. 137) and that his own book ‘challenges the idea, advanced by a number of scholars, that [Ferguson] advocated the establishment of a popular, egalitarian or non-monarchical form of government in modern states’ (p. 5). Yet, I know of no contemporary Ferguson scholar who takes this line. Most are well aware that Ferguson’s republicanism did not necessitate substantive political equality. Rather his preference was for mixed monarchy, which is readily accommodated within the republican tradition. Constitutional (though never hereditary) monarchies are entirely consistent with the republican tradition which is not, as is commonly thought, reducible to constitutional republicanism. They are acceptable so long as they represent regularly constituted government (Robertson 1983, pp. 139–140). This is precisely what Ferguson had in mind.

Something that is perhaps under-estimated in McDaniel’s analysis is the extent of the influence of Polybius on Ferguson. Polybius’ main subject was how ancient Rome had risen to superpower status in the Mediterranean; he was also concerned to understand how Rome later maintained its power and concluded that that its institutionalisation of healthy levels of conflict within a mixed constitution was the secret to securing the strength of the state while protecting the liberty of citizens. Ferguson was attracted to this diagnosis and followed Polybius in the view that single types of polities are instable and therefore fated to collapse; so he endorses a kind of neo-Polybian model with its system of checks and balances and division of powers (1996a, pp. 123–124). Mixed monarchies are preferred because they are at least one way of preventing degeneration in mass commercial societies. Liberty did not depend on substantive equality and popular rule; after all, ‘[i]t is well known … that constitutions framed for the preservation of liberty, must consist of many parts’ (1995, p. 252). Any attempt to introduce a pure or unitary constitutional form could result in either tyranny or anarchy (1996a, pp. 124–125, 1792, p. 497). Conversely, one of the ‘beauties’ of the mixed constitution is that ‘it can withstand many evils without being overthrown’ (1782, p. 292). As McDaniel stresses (while largely overlooking the Polybian precedent here), for Ferguson pure democracy meant mob rule whereas in ‘governments properly mixed’ a ‘counterpoise’ is found ‘in which the public freedom and the public order are made to consist’(1996a, p. 158).

An abiding—and sometimes misleading—tension in Ferguson is the importance of balancing a Whig desire for liberty with a Tory desire for ‘order’, a tension that runs through all his writing (1792, p. 497; see also Hill 2006, ch. 12). A major wildcard in understanding how Ferguson sought to manage this balance is his hearty endorsement of the Polybian doctrine that institutionalised conflict is essential to the practice of liberty and the maintenance of his preferred (mixed) constitution. Contrary to thinkers like Smith and Hume, who welcomed the politically pacifying effect of commerce, Ferguson regretted the routinisation of political life and saw political conflict—particularly between factions—as the source of many positive, unintended consequences. Such conflict, he thought, prevents social ossification; stimulates the formation of the state and formal defence institutions; plays a pivotal role in the development of the moral personality (in men); preserves the balance of powers in government; prevents the encroachment of despotism; and, when controlled, is beneficially cathartic, allowing citizens to discharge suppressed and potentially destructive hostilities (see Hill 2001).

For Ferguson, conflict is primal and natural, not something that could or should be transcended.

Thus, for Ferguson, conflict is primal and natural, not something that could or should be transcended. Too much order will lead to inertia, loss of social cohesion and therefore corruption, classically understood as a developmental reversal. Ferguson reiterates the argument, first set out by Polybius in the Rise of the Roman Empire, that the Romans maintained free constitutions ‘not … by means of abstract reasoning, but rather through the lessons learned from many struggles and difficulties’ and through the adoption of reforms indicated by ‘the light of experience’ (Polybius 1979, 6.10, p. 311).

Ferguson tells us that once ‘free’ constitutions have been established, they must be preserved through the energising force of political conflict. Political ‘liberty’ is ‘maintained by the continued differences and oppositions of numbers, not by their concurring zeal in behalf of equitable government’ (1996a, pp. 124–125). Far from being a sign of stability, political quiescence conceals an ominous pathology: ‘the turbulence of free states is contrasted with the seeming tranquillity of despotical government’ (1792, p. 510).

If I have any reservations about McDaniel’s book, it is that it does not devote enough attention to the kind of tensions, paradoxes and ambivalences that make Ferguson such an original, sophisticated and exegetically challenging thinker. For example, while highly critical of commercial progress, Ferguson also conveys the consistent message that commercial development is natural, adaptive and inevitable. Within his stadial historiography, Ferguson posits the natural and universal tendency for all cultures to progress sequentially through several discrete stages from ‘savage’ (hunters and gatherers) through to ‘barbarous’ (agricultural) and finally to ‘polished’ (commercial) social forms (1996a, pp. 80–105). It is our destiny as creative beings to invent, to specialise and refine our talents, and to pursue the commercial arts. Even luxury consumption is ultimately condoned as generating many positive benefits (Hill 2006). Therefore I would go so far as to say that ambivalence about wealth and progress was the keynote of Ferguson’s system of thought.

Ferguson was also extremely conflicted about empire. On the one hand, as McDaniel rightly emphasises, Ferguson offered a persistent critique of large territorial empires (p. 111), arguing that it was by military expansionism that Rome ‘put the finishing hand’ to its own ‘internal corruption’ (1996a, p. 262). But McDaniel neglects the topic of Ferguson’s vehement opposition to American independence as expressed in a pamphlet commissioned by the British government and published anonymously in 1776 (entitled Remarks on a Pamphlet Lately Published by Dr. Price). Further, Ferguson acted as secretary to the Carlisle Commission, sent to Philadelphia to effect conciliation, and was involved in the authorship of the ‘Manifesto and Proclamation to the Members of Congress’ of 3 October 1778. The ‘Manifesto’, issued by Ferguson and the other reconciliation commissioners (George Johnston, Sir Henry Clinton and William Eden) towards the end of their failed mission, was addressed to Congress, the state legislatures and ‘all the inhabitants of the state’. Rather like the feckless farmer who shuts the gate after the horse has long since bolted, it denounced the ‘rebels’ and threatened them with total war if they failed to capitulate. (Lossing 1859, II, p. 144; see also Hill 2006, ch. 12).

Ferguson is not always definitive in his attitude to egalitarianism and mass political participation.

Another, perhaps more serious ambivalence is that Ferguson is not always definitive in his attitude to egalitarianism and the mass political participation that many saw as its natural corollary. He wrote that participation in civic life is where ‘mankind find the exercise of their best talents’ (1996a, p. 149) and that ‘[i]nstitutions that preserve equality, that engage the minds of citizens in public duties, that teach them to estimate rank by the measure of personal qualities, tend to preserve and to cultivate virtue’ (1978, p. 294). Governments, he wrote, are to be ‘estimated, not only by the actual wisdom or goodness of their administration, but likewise by the numbers who are made to participate in the service or government of their country, and by the diffusion of political deliberation and function to the greatest extent that is consistent with the wisdom of its administration’ (1792, II p. 509). It is sometimes hard to figure out just how aristocratic Ferguson’s attitude to the ‘mob’ really was when he opined, for example, that extensive public participation guards against the fatal weakness of simple or total forms of rule: ‘[T]he error that results from the freedom of one person is best corrected by the wisdom that results from the concurring freedom of many’ (1792, II p. 509). And yet, McDaniel is not mistaken in characterising Ferguson as genuinely fearing mob rule. The latter did write, after all, that ‘[w]hen all the powers of the Roman Senate were transferred to the popular assemblies, the Liberty of Rome came to an end’, that ‘the power of the people is not the good of the people’ and that Rome’s elites were right ‘to prevent, as much as possible … ill-informed assemblies of people from deliberating on matters of state’ (1776, p. 52, 1783, p. 309, 407). We also know that he wrote to Christopher Wyvill that he opposed any broadening of the franchise (1782, p. 292). Ferguson’s position here was not, of course, contradictory and no participatory democrat today, however enthusiastic, would deny that mass participation can have adverse consequences for stability and liberty. But the very real tensions in Ferguson’s thought on this topic do require some acknowledgment.

In the end, Ferguson does endorse a mixed monarchy rather than a democratic republic but the full extent of popular participation within his preferred constitution remains unclear. Although the more aristocratic and cautious Ferguson—the Ferguson McDaniel represents to us—strikes me as ultimately the more authentic Ferguson, at the same time the tensions in his published opinions are not insignificant.

Despite these few minor reservations, this is a valuable and scholarly addition to the literature on Ferguson and will be enjoyed by generalists and specialists alike. It will also appeal to those who puzzle over what McDaniel describes as one of the ‘central political dilemmas of modernity’ (p. 1), namely, how to prevent large, prosperous and competitive commercial states from degenerating into counter-democratic militarism.


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Ferguson, A. 1782, Letter to Reverend Christopher Wyvill, 2 December, Correspondence, II, no. 2015, p. 292.

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Philp, M. 1998, ‘English republicanism in the 1790s’, Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 235–262.

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Robertson, J. 1983, ‘Scottish political economy beyond the civic tradition: Government and economic development in The Wealth of Nations, History of Political Thought, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 451–482.

Robertson, J. 2000, ‘The Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment’, in The Scottish Enlightenment, Essays in Reinterpretation, ed. Paul Wood, University of Rochester Press, Rochester.

Lisa Hill is Professor of Politics in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Adelaide. Her interests are in political theory, intellectual history and issues in electoral law and behaviour.

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